These women created legacies in the region's arts landscape that still thrive today

When an acquaintance in New Haven, Conn. published a book on the arts in that New England university town, Kathy Merchant knew there was a better one to be done about this part of the country.

The problem was how to corral this region’s extensive story into something that would be faithful to history, yet digestible. Even when the book's scope was narrowed to women and the arts, it was still tough to keep its length to something manageable.

Initially conceived to spotlight 100 women who influenced the long history of the arts here, the just-published "Imagineers, Impresarios, Inventors: Cincinnati's Arts and the Power of Her," profiles 120 women who shaped the arts over two centuries. And there’s more to be done.

“This barely scratched the surface and there’s a whole other book that we can do,” Merchant says.

The book spotlights about a dozen women who were instrumental in founding or supporting arts organizations in Northern Kentucky.

It’s a series of short profiles of women, some well-known, many relatively unknown, who created art, launched organizations, and supported the arts over Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky’s long history of music, theater, dance, visual art and more.

The book was conceived as a companion to the Power of Her celebration, an 18-month initiative and collaboration between ArtsWave and other regional organizations to celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage and the ratification of the 19th Amendment (on Aug. 18, 1920) granting women the right to vote.

It brings to light the story of Margaretta Baker-Hunt, a Covington resident and community volunteer and organizer who in 1922 formalized that work by creating the Baker-Hunt Foundation for the promotion of art, education, science, psychic research, and good works of religion in the Covington area.

She used her home at 620 Greenup St. for this purpose and today the Baker Hunt Art & Cultural Center’s campus encompasses nearly three acres of property and four buildings, with the house on Greenup and its surrounding property as the centerpiece.

There are volunteers such as Arlene Snyder Gibeau, who in the ‘70s and ‘80s, raised money and organized events to keep a crumbling Carnegie library building in Covington alive and viable until it could be restored to its original 19th century glory. Today, The Carnegie is a central venue in Northern Kentucky that includes an art gallery, a theater, and educational programming.

And there are professionals such as Angela Williamson, the first general manager of the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, who combined her business expertise with a love for the arts to guide the operations of that Northern Kentucky organization for two decades.

On the performance side, Maysville native Rosemary Clooney’s story of stardom, addiction, and redemption is told.

Spanning that history, which dates to the 19th century, required dividing the book into four parts: a section on women whose achievements and work left a legacy that stands today; one on 19th and 20th century founders and leaders; one on 21st century arts founders, and a final section on contemporary influencers and thought leaders.

More than two dozen local writers contributed the profiles, which were edited by Merchant. It was an eye-opening experience for her. “There were all kinds of people I never heard of before,” says Merchant, who has lived in Cincinnati for more than two decades and is the retired CEO of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

They are people such as Loretta Manggrum, the first African American to graduate from what was then called the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and is now University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. She was a composer and teacher, some of whose works now reside in the Library of Congress.

There is Mary Louise McLaughlin, a 19th century ceramic artist who is credited with developing the underglaze technique made famous by her rivals in the trade at Rookwood Pottery, a Cincinnati company that was itself founded by a woman, Maria Longworth Storer.

Sarah Worthington King Peter founded the Ladies Academy of Fine Arts in 1854, the precursor to the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

More recently, in 1985, Carolyn Wallace, the manager of the old Swifton Commons Mall, founded a weekly summer jazz concert at the Bond Hill shopping center. Long after the mall closed, It’s Commonly Jazz is still presenting local jazz artists (virtually this year).

And there are names that are known throughout Greater Cincinnati, as they grace some of our longstanding institutions and organizations: Louise Nippert, a philanthropist who has supported the symphony, opera, ballet, Music Hall, CCM and many other organizations; and Patricia Corbett and the foundation named for her that has endowed arts education and performance for decades in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

More than a year ago, Merchant took her idea for a book on the arts in the region to ArtsWave and its CEO, Alecia Kintner. After listening to the pitch, Kintner agreed to underwrite the book, with one caveat: make it about women.

Kintner and others were just planning the Power of Her initiative and a book on women’s contributions to the arts would make a perfect companion piece and memento.

ArtsWave sponsored a public nominating process, and it was clear as the results came in that it would be difficult to limit the number of profiles to 100. ArtsWave leadership, staff members, and volunteers sifted through the nominations to come up with the 120 people who were ultimately profiled.

Many have left a legacy defines the region. Merchant and the team discovered that 35 arts organizations that were founded at least partly by women since 1854 are still in business today, including the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Art Academy, the Taft Museum of Art, and Cincinnati Opera.

“It’s just a sign of sturdiness and stability,” she says.

“Imagineers, Impresarios, Inventors: Cincinnati's Arts and the Power of Her” can be ordered through ArtsWave here. Proceeds will be used by ArtsWave for further support of women artists and supporters in the region.




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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is the managing editor of NKY Thrives, an award-winning journalist, and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading or watching classic movies.